There are some albums that come along and chill you to the marrow: Ellis Swan’s 3am is one of them. One for the nocturnal hours with a tape hiss that cuts through the cold loneliness of night.
Also of the band Dead Bandit alongside James Schimpl, Swan is cosmic drifter. Now based in Chicago, Swan originally hails from the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, having also spent time in Vancouver, Montreal and New Orleans. Getting into the inner grains of sound with Swan’s music, and not only can you hear the essence of a lonely traveller: you can feel it.
Consisting of 14 tracks clocking in at just under 35 minutes, 3am is ambient fractured folk designed for solitude and dark rooms. With an opening song like the languid dread of Basement Suite, a bleak picture emerges.
From here, we are greeted with an incessant loop of creeping synths and guitar lines that stick to the shadows – Down by the Reservoir the brooding capsule which Swan occupies for 3am’s duration. Following on, and Horses Bones possesses a hushed Sleepy Jackson type of vibe (“Gonna keep walkin’ till my days are done)”. Delivered with an AM delirium, it really does capture the spirit of 3am, with drum machine hisses and outer-church organs so sharp, they scrape the sleep from your eyes.
Echoing Prazision LP-era Labradford, in many ways Swing is the kind of song Marty Rev could have made had he tried his hand at folk music. His loss is Swan’s gain, as the songwriter delivers one of 3am’s most brutal passages. (“Where are you going? You don’t belong and “A widow’s kiss / A mouthful of soap/ A man alone with a stool and rope/ And I swing.”)
Cinematic in both sound and theme, I Could Be Worse follows, passing off a vibe seemingly inspired by 1930s Berlin in a gutter along the Potsdamer Strasse. Quite contrasting to She’s My Sweet Summer Storm, which is cloaked in the very storms Swan references throughout the song.
While Swing is arguably 3am’s true moment of despair, its closest rival arrives in Hospice. For anyone who has experienced the subjects Swan highlights during this song, well… it’s beyond triggering. Both Puppeteers Tears (“Call my name you were torn from my arms in the storm”) and the title track (“Trying to keep the devil away from you”) feel loosely connected to it.
Ending with Down in the Dirt, Swan delivers a ditty in which Devendra Banhart couldn’t write during his golden period. It’s a burgeoning end to an album seemingly delivered by an outer world spirit.
With distant arrangements akin to a prairie hum, their position perfectly illuminates Swan’s weighty vignettes; the kind that underline that hard moments have been lived. With the plethora of folk artists banging out the same conventional tropes, Ellis Swan is the kind of artist that should be the reference point. On 3am, he explores the darkest corners on earth, and what he finds is something profoundly rich and bravely original. With 3am, he’s untangled folk music like few have done before him.
3am is out now via Quindi Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.